Mr. Dubois had said, "Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.
Dubois had waved his stump at us. "Nevertheless — wake up, back there! — nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital , turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx,nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value... and this planet might have been saved endless grief.
"Or might not," he added. "You!"
I had sat up with a jerk.
"If you can’t listen, perhaps you can tell the class whether ‘value’ is a relative, or an absolute?"
I had been listening; I just didn’t see any reason not to listen with eyes closed and spine relaxed. But his question caught me out; I hadn’t read that day’s assignment. "An absolute," I answered, guessing.
"Wrong," he said coldly. " ‘Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human — ‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible." (I had wondered what Father would have said if he had heard "market value" called a "fiction" — snort in disgust, probably.)
"This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him... and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.
"Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain." He had been still looking at me and added, "If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier... and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?"
"Uh, I suppose it would."
"No dodging, please. You have the prize — here, I’ll write it out: ‘Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.’ " He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. "There! Are you happy? You value it — or don’t you?"
I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids — a typical sneer of those who haven’t got it — and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.
Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. "It doesn’t make you happy?"
"You know darn well I placed fourth!"
"Exactly!The prize for first place is worthless to you... because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which istrue — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value."
Robert A. Heinlein "Starship Troopers" (1955)